Who is haunting this historic area in Boston?
139 Tremont St, Boston MA 02111
The designation “America’s Oldest Park” makes Boston Common seem as tame as a Sunday picnic. In reality, it could be the best place in Boston to experience a ghost.
Criminals, accused witches, and pirates were publicly executed here for more than one hundred years. Its dark history is mostly unknown to the sunbathers and dog walkers that fill the park today.
Even now, a sense of lawlessness haunts the Common. Not only does this park carry a reputation as the most haunted in the city, but it also serves as a reminder of human nature’s morbid curiosity with death.
It’s hard to find a place in Boston that has seen more history than the Common. The 350-year-old park is full of graves, ghosts, and gallows. It’s impossible to know just how many bodies lay under the park in one big anonymous grave.
Most buried here were poor, sick, killed in battle, or murdered in front of a public mob. It comes as no surprise that people who use “America’s Oldest Park” today will often get ghostly reminders of the park’s dark history.
If you visit the Boston Common today, you’ll find a small plaque on the southeast corner of the Frog Pond marking the former location of “The Great Elm.” The plaque celebrates the tree as where the “The Sons of Liberty assembled.” It also happened to be Boston’s most notorious hanging tree.
When the Great Elm was used for public hangings, its victims were left to dangle from the branches for a prolonged period so the public would be sure to get the message. That same message may be still terrifying people today.
Visitors often report pale apparitions hanging from trees in the park. Some say they can hear the sound of a rope creaking from a tree branch.
A windstorm brought the Great Elm down in 1876. The tree is gone, but are its victims still lingering in the park, voicing the injustice of their death? If there are ghosts, who are they?
Some of the Great Elm’s earliest victims were Native Americans captured during King Philip’s War. As the population of English colonists grew, a bloody war began. Colonists would destroy a village, and Indians would respond by burning down a settlement.
Tantamous, a well-known Native American Nipmuc leader and spiritual healer, was part of that war. Colonists ordered him and his family to Deer Island. There they whipped Tantamous for the rebellious speech he gave there.
Tantamous escaped Deer Island, but his son led to his demise. His son told the colonists where they could find his father under the promise no harm would come to him.
The promise was broken; when colonists found Tantamous, he was marched down the street with a noose on his neck and hanged on the Great Elm. After he died, his family was sold into slavery. All told, 45 Native Americans were publicly executed by hanging on the Great Elm in 1676.
Tantamous was said to be a medicine man with spiritual powers. Could he be using those powers to remind people of the nation's dark history?
Tantamous’s voice may have been heard. In 2020 Boston Common served as the starting point of a protest march by the United American Indians of New England for ingenious rights.
Ann “Goody” Glover, a strong-willed Irishwoman, worked for a wealthy family washing laundry in Boston. She had a sharp tongue that led to her undoing when she got into an argument with her boss’s 13-year-old daughter.
After the argument, the kids of the household began acting strangely. Naturally, Glover was accused of bewitching the children. Goody was locked up on suspicion of practicing the dark arts.
According to a 1684 piece written by Rev. Increase Mather called “Remarkable Providences: An essay for the recording of illustrious providences,” Goody primarily spoke in Gaelic, but her accusers demanded that she recite the Lord’s Prayer in English. When she couldn't or wouldn't say the words, the government deemed it the mark of the witch.
She hanged on the Great Elm tree in 1688, but before she died, she was reportedly heard arguing in her jail cell with the devil.
Today, people report seeing a female wearing Puritan-era clothes, weeping and sometimes screaming in Boston Common. The nearby Tobacco shop employee says he often hears the rattle of chains in the early morning. Could it be Goody, shackled, and doomed to relieve her last days forever?
More than 100 years after Goody’s hanging, a crowd of thousands gathered in the Boston Common to watch a female pirate named Rachel Wall die. With no T.V. or the internet, public hangings were a form of entertainment. The case of a rare “female” pirate sentenced to death was a special treat.
At the age of 16, Rachel met her husband, George. George convinced her to leave Pennsylvania for Boston to live a life of excitement. George was a fisherman and encouraged Rachel and their group of friends to run off and become pirates together.
The Bonnie and Clyde of their time, they successfully stole a ship and hatched a plan to use Rachel as bait.
They disguised their boat to appear in distress after a storm. Rachel would cry for help. When a good-samaritan boat docked to help her, the pirates would jump aboard to rob and kill the unsuspecting shipmates.
The couple used that strategy to rob 12 ships and reportedly killed 24 sailors in just two years. George drowned in a shipwreck, leaving Rachel to continue with her pirate ways as a widow. She'd already had a taste of a life of crime and wouldn't go back to being a maid.
Eventually, she was caught and charged with several crimes. She admitted to piracy but claimed to have never killed anyone. She was put to death swinging from the branches of the Great Elm. Rachel Wall was the last woman hung in Massachusetts.
Is Rachel one of the ghostly apparitions swinging from the branches today? Perhaps it’s her spirit lingering in the park that encourages thieves and robbers to prey on tourists and visitors in Boston Common on a dark night.
Public hangings ended in the Common in 1817, but it still served as a place for crowds to gather and ogle the deceased nearly a decade later. For that reason, one of the most unsettling places in Boston Common is Central Burying Grounds.
Popular legend says Boston Common Central Burying Grounds is incredibly haunted. Perhaps the paranormal activity is due to the disrespect shown to the bodies buried below.
People who visit the cemetery say the air is thick with the feeling of despair. They sense they’re being watched as shadows dance behind the gravestones. It’s the sensation of being stuck in a crowded room, wanting to leave but not being able to.
In 1895, Boston started work, pioneering America’s first subway system. If you find subway tunnels terrifying, you might opt to take the bus in Boston after learning what's buried in the walls.
Visit Central Burying Grounds Cemetery today, and you can see a grey headstone with the words “Here were re-interred the remains of persons found under the Boylston Street Mall during the digging of the subway.”
The grave is about the size of a single-family headstone. Obviously, it’s shocking to picture a pile of at least 1,000 bodies buried below.
When the project began, city leaders expected to find mostly empty tombs belonging to bodies that had been dug up and reburied elsewhere decades ago. But the tombs were far from empty.
According to a Boston Post article from May of 1895:
“The work on the commons is proceeding cautiously as new tombs are met at every step … Yesterday there was gathered up a great box of bones. Among the heap were seven skulls, one of them covered in long brown hair.”
Construction plows turned up dismembered bones in the dirt by the thousands. Word spread, and Just as the news of executions brought crowds to the Common, the chance to see dead bodies picked out of the dirt brought in as many crowds as a political rally.
Newspapers reported rumors of young men stealing some of the bones and auctioning them off for money.
Other residents were not as amused by the project. Many were concerned about the potential health hazards of a park full of decaying bodies. In an article in The Daily Advertiser, one person wrote, “Wherever the earth dredged up from the subway cribs have been spread over the ground, the trees have been sickened. Some of them have died.”
Eventually, the city was forced to hang canvas around the project, so onlookers could no longer see the rotting bones tossed into big boxes. With no way to identify most of the remains, the city elected to bury them in a mass grave under a single headstone.
So who did the remains belong to? It’s believed they were American patriots killed in battle, foreigners who died in the city, and the bodies of British redcoat soldiers who died of sickness or killed in combat.
Three years later, the city may have paid the price for disturbing the peace. A subway gas explosion at the intersection of Boylston and Tremont Street killed six people and injured 54 others. Included in the dead was the Conductor G.D. Bigelow and Rev. Dr. Start, a well-known clergyman.
Often subway passengers will hear the sounds of moaning and wailing during their daily commute. Some laugh that the spirits are simply angry; they’re running late for work. While that could be the case, some of the apparitions in the tunnel suggest otherwise.
According to Haunted Boston by Taryn Plumb, a British soldier dressed in full redcoat attire and holding a musket has been seen several occasions standing on the tracks. It’s said the soldier only appears in the morning and serves as an initiation of sorts for new subway conductors.
In the Biography Channel’s “Haunted Encounters: Face to Face,” the group the Paranormal Syndicate explored abandoned subway tracks near Boston Common.
In the episode “Bostons’ Haunted Underworld,” investigators used specialized camera equipment and recording devices to monitor what would happen if they played sounds of explosions and people screaming to stir up raw emotion to victims of the gas explosion.
The investigators claimed all of their flashlights equipment immediately died.
When every piece of equipment starts failing, I know it sounds crazy but what else can do that, - Daniel Hooven, leader of Paranormal Syndicate.
Haunted Boston also references spirits that linger above their graves in the cemetery itself.
In the 1970s, a retired dentist, Jim McCabe, claimed that he encountered a young girl with an ashy and unhealthy complexion dressed in a dirty outfit as he was passing by the cemetery.
Unnerved, he tried to turn away, but the apparition continued to appear immediately in front of him no matter which way he faced. He claims the girl continued to taunt him by removing his keys from his pocket.
Despite a long relationship with death, Boston Common is also the site of celebration, love, and happiness. Concerts, speeches, and gatherings continue to happen here every day.
The ghosts you might encounter at Boston Common may not be much different from you after all. Many say they've seen two women in Victorian-era dress, strolling pleasantly along with others enjoying the day. They are said to suddenly disappear if acknowledged by the living.
The Boston Common is visited by millions of people every year and is the setting for sports, protests, and large events. Sometimes called “The People’s Park,” it has ice skating in the winter, tennis courts in the summer, and an outdoor theater.
Rotating food trucks are located in the park from April through October. A Frog Pond with a nearby splash pad offers a cool retreat for families during the summer.
The history of Boston Common makes it a year-round must-see for tourists and residents. Enjoy the great outdoors of America's park while appreciating the growth America has seen in 350 years and the sacrifices of those buried below.